Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Seeking Acclaim, They Found Disdain

Philip F. Lawler has posted the first chapter of his book The Faithful Departed, which examines the collapse of Catholic culture in Boston. He writes:

Clearly, any bishop who tolerated abusive priests, covering up the evidence of their crimes, was guided by a very strange, unhealthy understanding of his own pastoral responsibilities. These prelates were, at best, protecting the public reputation of Catholicism. But the engine of the Church runs on God's grace, not on public acclaim; the Church has been most vigorous at times when the faith was held in contempt and even openly persecuted. The Body of Christ does not need a clumsy public-relations campaign. As St. Augustine tersely put it, "God does not need my lie."

The effort to keep ugly secrets from public view would make more sense if the Church saw herself as a purely human institution, depending on public support for her strength. If some isolated scandal arose within a local branch of the Rotary Club we might all agree to keep the matter quiet, to preserve the club's image. Rotarians are good people, after all, and their clubs do a great deal of good work within the communities. If they ever lost their reputation for these good works, the Rotary Clubs would be doomed, because they have no other source of strength.

Lawler connects this solicitous concern for public reputation with the many personal and political compromises made by American Catholics, but especially the Catholic hierarchy. As an analysis based in moral psychology, Lawler's chapter can explain much.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Campus Ministry is for Faculty, Too. In Theory.

A longtime internet corresponded of mine, who is now a professor, commented on the post below in response to my queries about Catholic campus ministries' faculty relations. Her words are worth a post of their own:
While I don't want to put all the burden of relationship-building on the Catholic Centers, I do think that they need to strive to cultivate good relationships with Catholic faculty.

I currently teach part-time at a state school with a vibrant Newman Center. The Newman center bulletin claims that it is for the "Students, faculty, and staff of [area colleges]." Great! You'd think that would include me, as a part-time faculty member, right?

But . . . in the few months that I've been going to this Newman center, the only thing that I've seen pitched specifically for staff and faculty was a call for financial assistance.

True, many of the social activities -receptions, parties, etc.- are carefully planned to allow non-student community members to take part, as well as students, but most of the actual spiritual formation activities, from the women's group to the praise and worship, are intended for students and are designated as student activities. And as far as I can tell, there is nothing specifically FOR Catholic faculty members or staff as distinct from students. My undergraduate institution had a faculty-wine-and-cheese event every year; I have yet to see anything even as simple as that.

I guess I am lazy. A true trail blazer would have gone knocking on Fr. What's his name's door and said, "Hey, I'm Catholic, and you might notice that I've been coming here week after week. I teach part-time here at Somewhere State, and I work on some Catholic authors in my research! And I'd really like to do something with or for your students. What would be helpful? Could I give a lecture? Teach a mini-class on Catholic literature? Help start a reading group?"

I guess that's what I should do. But I am a coward, and I flourish best when someone else makes the first move, or when there's already a structure for me to step into. What I would really have liked would have been an announcement at the beginning of the year saying "Any faculty, staff, or community members willing to assist the Newman center in X, Y, or Z ways, please contact so-and-so."

So, if any of your readers happen to be in leadership positions at Newman Centers, here's my unsolicited advice: don't just hope that Catholic faculty will seek you out. Set up a structure for whatever kind of faculty involvement you want -mentorship, teaching, after-party clean-up crew, whatever- and then actively recruit. Throw a faculty wine and cheese party once a semester, and recruit there. Set up a faculty Bible study, and maybe you'll get strong faculty mentors rising out of that. To get people to come to these events, put an ad in the school paper. Or distribute flyers at the local parishes in town in order to catch faculty members who prefer to worship in their own neighborhood. Once they have their heads in the door, bag them by suggesting further (and perhaps more active) ways of becoming involved.

I also suspect professional burnout hinders faculty involvement with campus ministry.
Though this is one reason I'm not a professor myself, spending extracurricular time with students would be low on my priority list after hours and hours fulfilling my teaching, grading, and research responsibilities.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Catholic Renewal Comes to Boulder

The Kreeft-Boonin debate reported below was sponsored by the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, a ministry of the campus parish which deserves further words and accolades.

Father Kevin Augustyn, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, closed the debate with an appeal to John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio

. In Father Augustyn’s words:

"Reason can lead to the threshold of faith, and once across that threshold of faith, then reason still has a role for us to understand God's word and God's ways in our lives. The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought exists for that reason, for the search for truth."

How little, I wondered, had Pope John Paul II’s words been mentioned in a University of Colorado Auditorium. That night, it was referenced before an audience of hundreds.

Father Augustyn later talked to me about the institute’s mission:

“The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought is basically our arm for outreach to both Catholic students that come to us, and the university at large. We're trying to engage an important secular university with the Catholic faith. How do you do that? You begin with dialogue, and what we have in common, and we believe reason is on our side.”

Father Augustyn described the lecture series, of which the debate was a part, as a first phase in expanding the campus parish mission. He mentioned the institute aspired eventually to issue certificates, though I am unsure of their subjects.

The January issue of First Things examined the mission of such institutes in Robert Louis Wilken’s essay Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools. Describing his visit to the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, he outlined the ideal to which the Thomas Aquinas Institute doubtless aspires:

In that setting, I sensed a freedom about what could be said. It was possible to deal with the topic in an explicitly Catholic way and from a Catholic perspective. Yet it was still a university lecture, and the audience certainly expected it to be as scholarly as other lectures given in that same room under different auspices. In fact, I knew that there would be persons in the audience who were experts on the topic and would most surely have different views than my own. A Catholic institute is no less a forum for debate and argument than is the rest of the university. Catholic tradition is a living thing to be contested as well as upheld, not a genteel legacy to be perfumed and powdered.

Father Augustyn mentioned as his models the St. Lawrence Catholic Center at the University of Kansas and the Institute for Catholic Thought at the University of Illinois, the latter of which is mentioned in Wilken’s essay.

Some Christians only speak of higher education with harping disdain. At the same time, some of these contemners wistfully pine for academic respectability without effort.

While God’s gifts are unmerited graces, men give respect only when earned. I saw that respect last Friday in the closing remarks of Dr. Boonin, the head of the philosophy department.

“There is something quite extraordinary about the fact that the Aquinas Institute invited me to speak this weekend, giving me equal time with a national representative of the views that obviously they are passionately committed to,” he said.

A post-debate reception took place at the St. Thomas Aquinas Center, in operation for only a few years(if that). A former Nazarene church two blocks from the campus Catholic parish, the center is quite spacious. A respectable library occupies the former worship space, while a kitchen and dining area provides a good venue for gatherings. I discovered a door saying that the room it served had been donated by a generous man named Carrigan. I wondered if he was related to Michael Carrigan, the only notable CU regent. To my supreme envy, I entered the Carrigan room to discover a recreation room featuring several leather couches, a movie poster of The Passion, and a large flat-screen television.

The center itself is on “The Hill,” a neighborhood of fraternities and sororities that was briefly famous for its drunken riots around 2000. The center’s furnishings can certainly compete with the average frat house. As a simulacrum of a distinguished alumnus, I made sure to lecture students about how spoiled they were.

The best contents of the Aquinas Center that night were its people. At least 75 students, alumni, and interested parties had accepted the invitation to the reception, where for a modest fundraising fee they could more informally speak with the two professors who had talked that evening. Two of my alumni friends and I spoke with amazement at the energetic life that had invigorated Boulder Catholicism. Comparison to the tenure of the laid-back Paulist Fathers, who left a few years ago, was not favorable to the Paulists. We all wished we could have enjoyed such facilities, events, and staff during our undergraduate years.

Wilken, writing about the low profile of Catholic academics, says, “On university campuses, Catholic faculty are largely invisible. They are seldom known to students, and, though many are accomplished scholars in their academic disciplines, few have the formation in Catholic culture or history to serve as mentors to students.”

Hoping the center had some friends among the faculty, I asked a senior whether she knew whether any Catholic professors were involved with the parish. Her answer was an embarrased “no.” We got to talking about the sad ignorance of Western religion that blights the campus, and we laughed as she recounted how a history professor in her class on Spanish colonialism in the New World taught that Paul was the first pope.

When I walked to the campus parish around the turn of the millennium, I often passed through “The Hill” feeling its spiritual emptiness, and my own. It was a despondent time for me, and that sadness has tainted many memories.

Leaving the St. Thomas Aquinas Center that night felt quite different.

Reflecting upon the debate and its after-party, I realized I had just witnessed that hopeful confidence which the “first pope” took to Mars Hill.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Peter Kreeft v. David Boonin CU-Boulder Abortion Debate

Judging from the turnout, the debate last Friday was a great success. The 288-seat basement auditorium was filled past capacity. The audience overflowed into the hall, where about forty chairs were set up. I’m told that spectators even crowded the stairs leading up from the basement. Not having left the auditorium until well after the debate had ended, I didn’t see the overflow. I conservatively estimated the turnout at over 400, others estimated it at 600. One fellow estimated 1,000, but that seems on the far side to me. More people arrived, but left because of the crowd.

Not bad for a cold Friday night in a college town.

The event was well-publicized. As I noted earlier, the event’s Facebook page numbered 95 RSVPs and over forty possibles. The archdiocese plugged the debate in the last Denver Catholic Register, and also posted a notice at its website.

Since Thursday, at least 25 people have come to this blog searching for information on the Kreeft-Boonin debates, which are a traveling show. Many of those visitors were local. The debate has certainly energized interest.

Peter Kreeft answered the debate question “Is abortion ever morally justifed?” in the negative, taking the pro-life side. He argued that for personhood is coextensive with human nature, enjoying all the rights thereof. He also argued that people cannot rationally deny the right to life of the unborn without denying the right to life of newborns.
Catholic News Agency summarizes:
He recounted how he once discussed abortion with "some very intelligent feminists," claiming that they had no argument justifying abortion that would not also justify infanticide. "After the argument they came up to me and said 'Congratulations, professor, you changed our mind. We didn't think you could do that'"

"'Oh, good,' I said, 'you're pro-life now?'"

"'No, we're pro-infanticide'," Kreeft finished, prompting surprised laughter from the audience. "So logical consistency can be a two-edged sword," he noted.

Kreeft presented a version of his argument that those who are uncertain about the personal state of the unborn child must refrain from abortion. Again, from the CNA summary:
Even someone unsure if the unborn child were a person, Kreeft argued, would in the absence of certainty have to refrain from an abortion. To kill someone without knowing if they are human is still homicide. To act in a rash manner that could kill someone, such as poisonously fumigating a room without being sure it was empty of people, would amount to criminal negligence. Barring certain knowledge that an unborn human is not a person, abortion similarly would be blameworthy even if the human fetus were not a person with the right to life.

Boonin noted that Kreeft's argument that any moral uncertainty about moral status of the unborn child meant all abortions were at minimum morally blameworthy could have radical implications if applied consistently. This "appeal to uncertainty," as he called it, could require one or more controversial stands: pacifism, since some soldiers are innocent conscripts and other innocents are killed in collateral damage in war; vegetarianism, since there can be doubt about whether killing an animal is blameworthy; opposition to capital punishment, because there was a possibility innocents would be executed; and finally it could require people to give all of their excess income to charity, since there was uncertainty whether spending money on luxuries deprived hungry or sick people from necessary resources.

I thought this was one of Boonin’s stronger points. Elsewhere he characterized some of Kreeft’s arguments as the often-fallacious slippery slope arguments. I believe he meant Kreeft’s allusions to the dehumanization of slaves or Jews in recent centuries. However, I think he dodged Kreeft’s postulate that justifying abortion also justified infanticide, which arguably is also a slippery slope argument.

Boonin himself proposed a thought experiment, a modified version of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist needs a blood transfusion” scenario: “Suppose you walked out in the park yesterday and a doctor caught you and conked you on the head and knocked you unconscious. You wake up, and the doctor has hooked you up to a bone marrow extraction device. The bone marrow is extracted from you and pumped into me. You ask 'What's going on?' The doctor says 'Don't worry, stay hooked into Professor Boonin for the next nine months, he'll be fine. Disconnect yourself now, because of a bone marrow disease, he's going to die.'”

Boonin thought most people agreed disconnecting oneself from the ill person was morally justified.

To the objection that this situation only applies to victims of rape, and that a woman consents to a pregnancy by consenting to sexual relations, Boonin modified his example: "Before you went walking in the park yesterday, you knew for a fact that my doctor was going to come looking in the park for a bone marrow donor. Your friends warn you 'Don't go in the park, lock your door! If you go into the park, there's a chance you're going to end up getting hooked up to this crazy philosopher, and you'll have to stick around for nine months." Escaping from this modified situation, Boonin thought, was similarly morally blameless.

But here I think he exposed the flaws of this thought experiment. It entails treating all pregnancies as kidnap-rescue scenarios. I don’t know about you, but no woman I know says “Bob and I are trying to force myself to carry a fetus for nine months.” Something so ordinary and universal as pregnancy, from which all men originated, cannot find a good analogy in such an extravagant hypothetical.

The thought experiment’s treatment of pregnancy as a disease, while certainly appealing to college students, also cannot form a consistent ethic. Think of the performance contradictions involved in an obstetrics ward that delivers babies, performs lifesaving surgeries in utero, and also commits abortions.

I also wonder: What would Boonin say are the duties of the father to a fetus considered parasitic?

Further, there is rhetorical manipulation latent in Boonin’s example.

In Thomson’s version of the scenario, a “famous violinist” suffers from some unspecified fatal ailment, the treatment of which requires someone to hook up to him for nine months. Boonin replaces the unspecified treatment with a bone marrow transfer, which is invasive and very uncomfortable.

Boonin also puts himself in the place of the ailing violinist. Whatever his other physical endowments, Boonin is not the handsomest of men. Further, both he and the hypothetical violinist are a few decades removed from their fetal stage.

Describe the person needing treatment as a gurgling infant, a cute four-year-old, or an ugly autistic teenager, and I think the audience reaction, and the philosopher’s intuitional response, would change depending on their sympathies with such persons. Make the ailing patient a blood relation, a pedophile, or a doctor nearly done with the cure for that bone marrow cancer from which he suffers, and our conflicted emotions cloud the argument that is meant to dissolve pro-life objections with revulsion towards imprisonment.

Boonin made some concessions to the pro-life cause, saying that if pregnancy were less burdensome an abortion could be an immoral act. I believe I heard him after the debate endorse the typical “viability” pro-choice criterion. I wished he had included this position in his public remarks, because it means that in his ethic, at the time when pregnancy is most burdensome upon the woman, it is least permissible.

Kreeft’s response to Boonin’s arguments seemed passive. A friend in attendance called his performance “understated,” which is perhaps the better word. Since I was more interested in recording the debate than in considering its truth, I initially thought Boonin did well against Kreeft. Only upon reflection, Kreeft’s position endured while Boonin’s shrank in stature.

At one point Kreeft suggested shifting the ground from “rights” to “responsibilities.” This was a bit inconsistent, since Kreeft’s arguments from the beginning used rights-language.

However, I think that shedding “rights talk” is the correct path to take. Rights-language is often antagonistic and conflict-based. Nobody talks about a right to be hugged, or a right to hug, because those actions have not been politicized. The conflict between mother(and father) and child is precisely what needs to be abated. Rights disputes suppose human equality, rather than human unity as the more important consideration.

In an egalitarian climate, the right to life must be universalized in distortive fashion. That is why Boonin can try to separate the right to life from the right to life support. While everybody can in theory live(insofar as anyone can theoretically live), the ability to sustain that life varies from person to person. Often such variety cannot be described in terms of equality.

“Rights-talk” is a political shorthand, a second-order description of the good in question. When talking about the right to life distracts from talking about life, something has gone awry.

The aftermath of the debate, and my excitement over what is happening in Boulder’s Catholic campus ministry, will have to fill another post.

For now a few references:
Update: I have published the detailed account made from my audio recording at Google Docs, it's ~2,000 words.

A recording of the debate is available on the ArchDen website

Francis Beckwith on Boonin’s book, “A Defense of Abortion,” a review excerpted at Mirror of Justice

Peter Kreeft's essay Human Personhood begins at Conception

Ivy Catholic reports a Kreeft-Boonin debate at Yale, the video of which is viewable at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Peter Kreeft to debate abortion ethics in Boulder

For local readers:

Two of the nations’ most well-known philosophers in the abortion controversy will go head-to-head in a debate, “Is abortion morally justifiable?” The debate is scheduled for 7pm on Friday, January 18 on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.

Dr. Peter Kreeft, a pro-life professor of philosophy at Boston College, will debate CU-Boulder professor and pro-choice voice Dr. David Boonin.

The debate will take place in Room 1B50, the auditorium in the basement of the Humanities building, which is just to the west of Norlin Library on the north side of the quadrangle.

It looks like the event will be very crowded. 86 people have RSVPd to the event's facebook page alone, and I think the room only has a capacity of 150.

A meet-and-greet with Kreeft will take place afterwards at the Catholic parish center. It is a fundraiser, so students will be charged $10 and adults/families should pay $20.

For a preview of Kreeft's argument, his essay Human Personhood Begins at Conception will likely suffice. I haven't read that essay in years, though I hope to revisit it soon.

More information on the lecture here.

UPDATE: See My report on the debate

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pope Benedict's University Speech on Tradition and Rationality

The cancellation of a papal visit to Rome's prestigious La Sapienza University calls to mind the reaction to Regensberg. Some Muslim protesters, egged on by sensationalistic reporting in the BBC's foreign language broadcasts, would go on to kill a few people to avenge the Pope's quotation of a fifteenth-century Byzantine emperor critical of Mohammed.

The Italian protests, reportedly led by the physics faculty, had different motives. Communists, sexual activists, and putative defenders of science and reason took offense at the Pope’s quotation of skeptical philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who called “rational and just” the 16th century verdict condemning Galileo. As the context makes clear, Pope Benedict was using this anti-modern attitude in his discussion of modern philosophy’s diffidence about truth and science.

One difference from the heated reaction to the Regensberg address? The Pope’s quotation of Feyerabend took place in 1990. Muslims at least have the sense to riot about perceived offenses committed only in the recent past.

While I am skeptical of the truism that publicly protesting some book or movie only draws attention to the object the protester would rather not publicize, the furor certainly caught my attention and tickled my curiosity.

There is to my knowledge no full translation of Pope Benedict’s planned address. Catholic News Agency has a few excerpts. However, I found the Italian text most useful, and I will in my amateur’s Italian translate passages of interest to me below.

One section illustrates the Pope’s support for a kind of traditionalism:

Here, however, the objection quickly emerges: the Pope, in fact, cannot speak truly about the basis of ethical reason, but ought to draw on his judgments about faith. For this reason he cannot claim a validity to these judgments for the many people who do not share that faith.

We ought to return again to this argument, because it places before us the absolutely fundamental question: What kind of a thing is reason? How can an affirmation—above all, a moral norm—demonstrate “reasonableness”?

At this moment I would like to note briefly that John Rawls, though denying to comprehensive religious doctrine the characteristic of “public reason,” saw even in their “non-public” reason at least a reasonableness that he could not, in the name of a rigid secularistic rationality, simply disregard those who uphold it.

Rawls sees a standard for this reasonableness between each group in that they derive similar doctrines from one accountable and determined tradition in which, over a long time, they have developed argument sufficiently good for sustaining their respective doctrines.

In this affirmation, it seems to me important that the recognition that the experience and the demonstration through the course of generations, the historical basis of human wisdom, are also a sign of its reasonableness and its enduring significance. In contrast to the a-historical reason that seeks only to construct itself in a-historical rationality, the wisdom of humanity of this sort—the wisdom of the great religious traditions—he that emphasizes these as true cannot with impunity consign them to the dustbin of the history of ideas.

Another touches on one of my peeves, the misuse of Euthyphro by those who have only taken, or have only taught, Philosophy 101:
I think one can say that the true, intimate origin of the university would be in the desire to know that is proper to man. He wants to know what everything surrounding him is. He wants truth. In this sense one can see the dialogues of Socrates as the impulse of that sort that birthed the Western university. I think, to mention one text for example, of the disputation with Euthyphro, who against Socrates defended mythical religion and its worship.

To him Socrates counterpoised the question: “You believe that there really exists between the gods a mutual war and terrible animosities and battles? Ought we, Euthyphro, to say that these things are actually true?”

There is apparently little devotion in this question. However, from Socrates there derived a religiosity more deep and pure, concerning the search for the God truly divine. The Christians of the first century recognized that his path and theirs was the same. They listened to his faith not in a positivist manner, or as the way of escape from unsatisfiable desires. They understood him as the dissolver of the fog of mythical religion, making a place for the discovery of that God who is Reason-creator and at the same time Reason-Love. Because of this, they asked themselves the reasons about God most great, and also about true nature and the true sense of being human. Inquiry was for them not a problematic condition of a lack of religiosity, but it made part of the essence of their way of being religious.

Therefore they had no need of dismissing or putting aside Socratic inquiry, but they were able, or rather, were obliged both to welcome and to recognize how part of their proper identity was the laborious inquiry to reach understanding of the entire truth. They were able, indeed, they were obligated, in the ambit of Christian faith, in the Christian world, to give birth to the university.

The Euthyphro dilemma is often thrown around against contemporary religion, as if Christians throughout history have been unaware of Plato. In fact, Plato answered the dilemma in a matter congenial to neo-Platonic Christians: participation in God, rather than merely following His will, provided a standard for devout behavior. I hope Pope Benedict’s categorization of Euthyphro as belonging to “mythical religion” can at least help reprove as soon as possible the second-hand undergraduate philosophizing that thinks not only did philosophy end with Plato, it ended with the early Plato.

(If anyone finds fault with my translation, or finds a professional translation, please let me know. I’ve only a year’s worth of Italian class, and I’m winging the rest with help from Semi-fluent.)

Addendum: Amy Welborn links to some better translations.

Peirce on Language and Reality

A November post here promised more on Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club.
Peirce thought that our representations can be classified, filled out, and elaborated in all sorts of ways, that they can even become "better," in the sense of "more useful," as we peel off their metaphysical husks. But we can never (as individuals) say that they are identical with their objects. This is not just because our knowledge always "swims" as Peirce put it, "in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy"; it is also because--and this is the distinctive feature of Peirce's theory of signs--there are no prerepresentational objects out there. Things are themselves signs: their being signs is a condition of their being things at all. You can call this notion counterintuitive, because that is exactly what it is: it is part of Peirce's attack on the idea that we can know some things intuitively--that is, without the mediation of representations. For Peirce, knowing was inseparable from what he called semiosis, the making of signs, and of the making of signs there is no end. If you look up a word in the dictionary, you find it defined by a string of other words, the meanings of which can be discovered by looking them up in a dictionary, leading to more words to be looked up in turn. There is no exit from the dictionary. Peirce didn't simply think that language is like that. He thought that the universe is like that.

This highly relational theory of reality is very congenial to the sacramental imagination, where no thing exists in itself but exists, analogically speaking, in communion with God. This is perhaps why the novelist Walker Percy was so attracted to Peirce, calling himself "A thief of Peirce" in his correspondence with semiotician Kenneth Lane Kenter.

It is possible that not just language in general but poetry in particular works because reality is thus interconnected. The talent for seeing the unobvious relations between an object, a quality, or another relation and describing its congruity or incongruity would be most fitting if that seen relation were not just a linguistic accident but instead had reality.

If poetry best relies on some form of ontological realism, the rise of nominalism or other habits of analytic thought would undercut the quality of poetry as well as the motivation for people actually to listen to it. The analytic approach, which breaks down reality into components with little regard for their relations, perhaps dissolves the structures basic to poetic success. All poetry becomes mere wordplay, the flatus vocis[puff of the voicebox] disdained by Ockham.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Why Europe mirrors "Blue State" America

The archives of Unqualified Offerings contains an exposure of the secret of anti-Americanism.

Mencius Moldbug declares:
I believe anti-Americanism is best described as an epiphenomenon of Universalism. The single most significant fact about the world today is that sixty-two years ago it was conquered by a military alliance whose leader was the United States, and whose creed of battle was this nontheistic adaptation of New England mainline Protestantism. I don't think it's a coincidence that the European ruling class holds essentially the same perspectives that were held at Harvard in 1945. The US Army did not shoot all the professors in Europe and replace them with Yankee carpetbaggers, but the prestige of conquest is such that it might as well have.

Moldbug thinks that Euro-American infighting mirrors a feud between "Blue State" vs. "Red State" government agencies. The State Department and the welfare agencies comprise the former, while the Defense Department, the White House, and the CIA comprise the latter.

The "Anti-American" European is thus "just like the San Francisco liberal who 'loves her country, but doesn't trust her government.'"

His thesis is suggestive but controversial, and it runs a gauntlet of criticism in the comments. While Moldbug's view of Europe is indubitably patronizing, his argument could offset the more dualistic arguments that Europe and America are being separated in an extreme civilizational schism.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Transsexual demands Catholic hospital make a woman out of him

Everyone knows California is weird.

It just got a little weirder.

A man trying to further his sex-change operation is suing a Catholic hospital for refusing to give him breast augmentation surgery.

He's suing under an anti-discrimination law:
Wertz believed the hospital’s policy violates the Unruh Act, a state law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. “There's simply no religious exemption in the Unruh Act," Wertz said. "We're talking about a type of care that's OK for one class but not another.”

Catholic News Agency has the story.

Recent opponents of anti-discrimination laws in California were claiming they would mandate gay activism in school textbooks and curricula. Even these hyperbolic activists never saw this one coming. I fear the lawsuit has a good chance of success.

This scenario, bending of both gender and mind, adds one more issue to the Colorado Exempla Health/Sisters of Charity hospital merger dispute.

Colo. social workers respond to boy's head bruise with SWAT team

There's disturbing news of police and social workers' overreaction to a childhood injury from a Colorado mountain town along the I-70 corridor. CBS4, the Grand Junction Sentinel and WorldNetDaily all cover the story. Here's the timeline:

Thursday night: 11-year-old boy goofs off, grabbing at the car door handle as his older sister pulls away. The boy slips, falls and bruises his head. Dad Tom Shiflett, a 62-year-old former medic who served in Vietnam, carries the kid home. After surveying the damage, Dad thinks the kid will be fine.

Concerned neighbors call paramedics, who upon arriving ask to see the kid. Like Dad, they find no significant problems. But the paramedics decide he needs to go to the hospital for an evaluation. Knowing the cost of hospital visits, the family refuses. The paramedics insist, but the family decides not to follow their advice.
So the ambulance crew, who also could not be reached by WND, called police, only to be told the decision was up to the Shiflett family.

The paramedics then called the sheriff's office, and officers responded to the home, and were told everyone was being cared for.

Then the next day, Friday, social services workers appeared at the door and demanded to talk with John "in private."

The social workers too are rebuffed. Fearing the worst from having watched one too many episodes of Judging Amy, they get a court order for a search warrant and medical treatment.

Then on Friday night the All Hazards Response Team arrives. According to WND:
Nearly a dozen members of a police SWAT team in western Colorado punched a hole in the front door and invaded a family's home with guns drawn, demanding that an 11-year-old boy who had had an accidental fall accompany them to the hospital, on the order of Garfield County Magistrate Lain Leoniak.

The boy's parents and siblings were thrown to the floor at gunpoint and the parents were handcuffed in the weekend assault...

Six of the family's 10 children still live at home. Are social workers as excessively suspicious of large families as I think they are?

WND is known for its sensationalism, but its description of the sheriff's rationale is disturbing even when accounting for WND's style:
The sheriff said the decision to use SWAT team force was justified because the father was a "self-proclaimed constitutionalist" and had made threats and "comments" over the years.

So dad's a complaining crank. Considering the response to his son's ordinary childhood faceplant, he has a lot to complain about.

CBS4 reports on the court-ordered medical treatment the boy received: "The doctor recommended fluids, Tylenol and ice to treat the bruises, according to a copy of Jon's patient aftercare instructions."

On Thursday night I met with one of my garrulous blog readers. He said with a dramatic hush in his voice that one could attract severe trouble from the government merely by calling oneself a constitutionalist. I thought he was being paranoid.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

William T. Cavanaugh against the "universal gaze"

From The Other Journal, which also carried the McCarraher interview linked earlier, comes another interview with William T. Cavanaugh. It examines with insight the dominance of the nation-state, the trampling of particularity by universalist pretensions, and how the worship of God in the Eucharist maintains Communion despite these forces.

At one point Cavanaugh critically reflects on every professor's favorite target: his students. He says:
...there is a certain kind of pathology, a mode or way of “seeing” space and time. It is a universal gaze that I have noticed in my students at a university where there is an assumption of this universal gaze. This is prevalent, of course, in what we tell our students all the time: that we are going to take them from their little provincial small towns in Minnesota and we are going to give them the world and make them universal subjects of the university. It is amazing the way they assume this character and assume their ability to enter into any time and/or space. We teach a course on the church in Latin America and we used to start with Rigoberta Manchu’s autobiography. It is incredible how quickly these suburban middle class Minnesota kids assume that they can identify with this Guatemalan peasant woman. And the message, of course if we are going to be honest, is that who we really identify with in the story are the landowners who cheat the peasants. But they assume that they can really just walk into the story and immediately identify with this Guatemalan peasant woman. So in light of this presumed gaze I want to give (God knows nobody will ever allow me to do this) a commencement speech at a college where I would stand up and say, “Please don’t go out and change the world”. The world has had enough of well-meaning middle class university graduates from the U.S. going out and trying to change the world and the world is dying because of it. . . go home.
The Nation State Project, Schizophrenic Globalization, and the Eucharist

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Blather of the Non-committed

It's such a vulgar compulsion that some people have--of making a great show of their ambivalence on a given subject. That is, of broadcasting this ambivalence of itself, and there's an end of it. They do not do so in order to resolve anything; just to make it clear to the world that there's something that they're fuzzy on, that it's somehow very personal, and that they have mustered the courage to ... well, to not stare it in the face.

Edward Michael George speaks against the lazy mind whose literal devotion to the principle "truth lies in the mean" generates nothing more than self-expression and indifference.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A Typically Provocative Eugene McCarraher Interview

Eugene McCarraher is perhaps my favorite leftist. Undaunted by the apparent triumph of American capitalism, he still labors in the small, neglected fields of Christian Socialism. Though his opinions sometimes evoke the clich├ęd irrelevance of the academic Marxist, and his invocations of Trotsky seem curiously indifferent to the overflowing graveyards of revolution, McCarraher is able land quite a few blows upon both lazy liberalism and neo-conservatism.

Therefore, I was delighted when Vox Nova pointed me in the direction of a recent interview with McCarraher, titled Britney Spears and the Downward Arc of Empire.

Noteworthy is his dismissal of the ubiquitous, impotent condemnations of "consumerism" and "materialism":
I think that Christians should stop yakking about "consumerism." "Consumerism" is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I've come to think that that's the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It's just too easy a target. There's a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don't, by the way, believe that we inhabit a "post-industrial" society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they're materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome, because it clearly doesn't work, and wrong-headed, because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.

McCarraher follows some of the criticisms of Christopher Lasch, who defended the purity of leisure against moralizing and professionalizing tendencies that would harness play for something else: play must advance one's career or one's health or one's intellect, but never allowed simply to be done for its own sake. Like Lasch, McCarraher hates the deadening habits of modern work. Yet rote labor seems to be the rule for a great portion of humanity. Though personal control of one's work life is certainly an ideal, I'd like him to explain just how creative a subsistence farmer or a rancher can be in his toils.

Christians should be pioneering a whole new economics, not just tacking "values" onto capitalism. They should be affirming abundance, not scarcity, as the primary ontological fact of economics. They should be offering courses, not in management, but in how to do without management as a distinct class. They should be offering courses and training in union organization, or in dispossessing those useless people otherwise known as stockholders and putting firms into the hands of people who actually work in them.

What I find worrisome is that the ontology of abundance is precisely the basis for many flawed habits of Liberalism. The vastness of the Americas fed the idea that there was natural plenitude; one only need to work minimally to attain significant wealth. The poor, therefore, were either dumb or lazy. This diminished the sense that wealth brought responsibility, even as it enhanced the belief that individuals controlled their lot in life.

Further, it's difficult to distinguish the "ontology of abundance" from the "ontology of wishful thinking."

If McCarraher's remarks about "Christian economics" make you suspect he doesn't care for the autonomy of secular disciplines, you're right. He continues:'s absolutely crucial to not give an inch to the secularization narrative, because to the extent that you do, you surrender any serious claim on the disputed territory. Once you concede the essential legitimacy of the "secular" account of the person—or of economics, or politics, etc.—you end up relegating Christianity to the realm of "spirituality," or "values," or some other gaseous invertebrate that hovers around an "essentially" secular self. Rather, Christians should contend that the "secular" marks the repression, displacement, and renaming of our desire for a sacramental way of being in the world. Indeed, the history of the person is both the history of those perversions and of attempts to mitigate or undo the perversions. So I think that it's better to say, not that the Christian account of personhood is "at odds" with the "secular" account, as the secular account is a disfigurement of personhood.

Is Dominionism alive and well and on the left? I don't think so. McCarraher is only expanding David Schindler's criticism of secular space. But his suggestions are so counterintuitive that one fears an anti-secular Christianized endeavor like Christian economics would look a lot like Christian cinema: earnest, pious, and incompetent in execution.

Still, McCarraher's alternative approach yields unexpected scenarios:
I think we must understand the Gates Foundation in exactly the way you described it: as a capitalist soteriology. That’s a basically Augustinian way to frame it, and as Augustine says, not everything about the earthly city is rotten. Still, even compassionate actions are performed with the ultimate intention of preserving and extending the libido dominandi that propels the earthly realm, and those actions are inevitably further compromised by the conditions that made them necessary and possible.


What should also trouble us about the Gates-Buffett initiatives is the idea that the poor—or the rest of us, for that matter—should have to depend on the benefactions of the super-rich rather than on the ministrations of government or of religious institutions. These acts of bourgeois-oblige, so to speak, exemplify the utter privatization of public services, among which should be the provision of medical care.

Here McCarraher strikes me as openly advocating not just "Big Government" but "Big Church." Imagine if all the conservative complaints about the inefficiencies and paternalism of government welfare could be directed instead against a powerful clerical bureaucracy in charge of vast wealth not inherently dedicated to self-interested growth. You've just imagined the position of anti-clerical economists of the Enlightenment.

This curious recapitulation of past disputes shows how the contingent political relations of the present could have developed along other lines. In imagining those possibilities, I certainly hope Eugene McCarraher expands his work.

Past McCarraher links:
How the pro-choice culture of capitalism encourages pro-abortion sentiments

The triumph of the Managerial Class in Catholic parishes

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Predatory Obscenities

"It is symptomatic of the underlying tenor of American life that vulgar terms for sexual intercourse also convey the sense of getting the better of someone, working him over, taking him in, imposing your will through guile, deception, or superior force. Verbs associated with sexual pleasure have acquired more than the usual overtones of violence and psychic exploitation. In the violent world of the ghetto, the language of which now pervades American society as a whole, the violence associated with sexual intercourse is directed with special intensity by men against women, specifically against their mothers. The language of ritualized aggression and abuse reminds those who use it that exploitation is the general rule and some form of dependence the common fate; that "the individual," in Lee Rainwater's words, "is not strong enough or adult enough to achieve his goal in a legitimate way, but is rather like a child, dependent on others who tolerate his childish maneuvers"; accordingly males, even adult males, often depend on women for support and nurture. Many of them have to pimp for a living, ingratiating themselves with a woman in order to pry money from her; sexual relations thus become manipulative and predatory. Satisfaction depends on taking what you want instead of waiting for what is rightfully yours to receive. All this enters everyday speech in language that connects sex with aggression and sexual aggression with highly ambivalent feelings about mothers."
-Christopher Lasch, Culture of Narcissism, p. 67 (1978)

I am no expert on the vulgarities of other languages and cannot judge the slang of American English to be uniquely forceful. Yet Lasch suggests an even darker side to our descent into widespread obscenity. The expletives undeleted from internet rants or the local movie theater reveal not only an incapacity for subtlety, but also an abusive conception of sex: "manipulative and predatory." Lasch's connection of sexual insults to adult male dependency should be kept in mind when reading the next story about trash-talking twenty-something men still trapped in immaturity.